Education doesn’t stop at the classroom door for Zahra Biabani, a 22-year-old climate justice activist based in Nashville. For years, she’s shared tips on how to become more environmentally conscious on her blog Soulful Seeds and her popular Instagram account of the same name. But during the pandemic, when TikTok usage has skyrocketed across the country as people have found themselves isolating or in quarantine, Biabani is engaging with the video-based platform more than ever.
TikTok may be best known for its goofy dance challenges and audio-based memes. But Biabani uses the app to educate others about intersectional environmentalism. In one TikTok, Biabani, a former dancer, recaps “good eco news” while dancing to Cardi B’s “Up.” In another, Biabani uses a filter that transposes her face onto a TED Talk stage in front of an audience. She jokes, “Ladies, if he thinks eating meat is manly, you know he’s compensating badly,” and the filter zooms out to applause. But most of the time, she’s serious, breaking down misconceptions surrounding climate change and how to spot greenwashing—corporations spinning their products to appear more sustainable—in minute-long videos.
“For a while, I felt kind of silly,” Biabani said during a Zoom meeting in early February. “I felt super old compared to a lot of the people I saw [on TikTok], but then the algorithm did its magic.”
Biabani is one of many activists of color in the environmental justice space who believe in TikTok’s potential as an activist platform. The beauty of TikTok lies in the fact that each activist in the climate community can spotlight their own expertise, whether it be veganism and soil quality or policy and fast fashion. These young activists see the app as a way to make environmentalism accessible and as a place to create community.
Welcome to Climate Justice Tok
TikTok is a platform designed to spread the word. Twitter and Instagram show users content based on who they are following. But on TikTok, you don’t have to painstakingly search for content that fits within your interests. Instead, the app utilizes an algorithm driven by the videos you watch and the comments you leave. The more you interact with the app, the more the algorithm learns about your preferences so that it can spit out suggested content on your For You Page—the app’s front page, which presents an endless stream of TikToks from users you don’t follow. The app lends itself to a siloing that benefits new creators, generating subcultures such as Gay TikTok, Food TikTok, Ceramics TikTok, and yes, Climate Justice TikTok.
It’s far from surprising that the idea of climate justice would resonate on an app that’s primarily used by Gen Z, considering that young people will be the ones to inherit the worsening consequences of climate change. This summer, after George Floyd was killed by the police, young people online recognized the need for more climate justice content that explicitly broke down how racism and colonialism exacerbate the impacts of climate change—and how the environmentalist community has historically ignored these issues. When activist Leah Thomas posted about intersectional environmentalism on Instagram last May in response to Floyd’s death, several other environmental accounts followed suit. And some, like 24-year-old Isaias Hernandez of @queerbrownvegan, brought that framework to TikTok.
Hernandez started @queerbrownvegan on Instagram in 2019. He wanted to make the jargonheavy environmental justice terms he learned as an environmental studies major at the University of California, Berkeley more accessible to other people of color. Hernandez started with posting infographics, but he knew that this was only a first step and might not spark discussions about larger issues. He wondered if TikTok might be a better place to talk through complex concepts, such as gentrification or overconsumption. “My journey was to kind of shift the focus from my ‘What Is?’ series to asking more critical questions about environmentalism,” Hernandez says.
Hernandez posts what he calls “green-screen education” videos on TikTok, in which he explains a topic in front of an image. In one TikTok, Hernandez appears before a picture of a mountain and explains how the conservation movement is rooted in white supremacy. He cites conservationists like John Muir and Aldo Leopold, who both held anti-Indigenous and racist views, as prime examples of the movement’s history. So far, he’s been gaining a following. His audience on TikTok leans slightly younger, and they’re more engaged, Hernandez says.
“My engagement on TikTok is actually much more personal only because the people who follow me actually comment on my videos every day,” Hernandez says. He finds it easier to create content for an audience he feels like he knows. He also responds to comments to build a relationship with the people who follow him.
A Hype House for the Planet
On TikTok, Hernandez hasn’t just gained an engaged audience; he has found his community: EcoTok, a collective of intersectional environmentalists. “EcoTok is my primary community, and that’s because there’s not that many environmentalist TikTokers out there,” Hernandez says. “We all know each other.” In Hernandez’s eyes, EcoTok exists at the intersection between History Tok, Environmental Tok, and Social/Racial/Environmental Justice Toks.
EcoTok is my primary community, and that’s because there’s not that many environmentalist TikTokers out there.
Seventeen-year-old activist and creator Alex Silva (@ecofreako) started EcoTok last summer after spending a year on TikTok trying to find other creators like him. At the time, he was already friends with Alaina Wood, who goes by @thegarbagequeen.
“It was mainly me and her posting about environmental stuff,” Silva says. “She had her science background, and I was just, you know, a teenager.” He decided to make a post about how he didn’t see too many environmental creators, and how he’d love to connect with more. Many different creators he’d never heard of started commenting. “I got super excited,” Silva says. “I was talking to Alaina like, ‘Hey, what do you think about starting an environmental Hype House?’”
Hype House is TikTok’s most famous collective, made up of a group of teens who rent a Los Angeles mansion to churn out content together under the @thehypehouse handle. Silva envisioned @eco_tok as functioning in a similar way: Creators would generate climate-related content under the handle, albeit without a shared physical space. Members of EcoTok come from all sorts of backgrounds: Some are students and activists, others are scientists and educators. Since its launch, EcoTok has gained more than 87,000 followers and has partnered with TED Countdown, TED Talks’ global initiative to find solutions to climate change.
EcoTok isn’t just for Gen Z. Millennials with environmental jobs are part of the collective, too. Twenty-six-year-old Doria Brown, who is a municipal energy manager in New Hampshire, joined EcoTok because she wanted to share her professional experience and expertise with fellow young people. “Nobody knows about the people who are actually in this career field doing amazing things,” Brown says.
Brown’s TikTok, @earthstewardess, is earnest and amorphous. She posts whatever is on her mind, from detailing how major companies are failing on the sustainability front to holding white allies accountable. Sometimes, she’ll TikTok about the news with a bit of critique. When NASA’s Perseverance Rover landed on Mars in February, Brown used a filter that plastered her face on to the Red Planet as she lip-synced, “I know you’re obsessed with me,” before cutting away to her face on Earth. Overlaying the video was the text: “Why are we so obsessed with life on Mars? When we already have a planet that sustains life?”
Why are we so obsessed with life on Mars? When we already have a planet that sustains life?
“I’m just on an adventure of figuring out what people want to see,” Brown says. She started off talking about zero-waste hacks and then ventured more into environmental justice. In February, she curated her content to celebrate Black History Month by educating people on Black environmental history as well as social justice.
Although Brown started @theearthstewardess on Instagram, like Hernandez and Biabani, she gravitates more towards TikTok because it’s less competitive and easier to collaborate with people who care about the same things. “On TikTok, I have more of a community of creators who want to work together to get the same messages out,” Brown says.
Resisting the Algorithm
Brown has found EcoTok and the larger climate justice community on TikTok a welcoming space for creators of color like herself. Throughout Climate TikTok, creators can find a healthy balance between education, humor, and lifestyle content. But even though it’s easier to find your hive on TikTok, the app is still susceptible to primarily promoting white content creators, Brown says. The larger environmentalist community on TikTok suffers from the very problem that plagues the movement outside of the platform: a prioritization of white voices and white perspectives.
“Unfortunately, a lot of the time the content that gets pushed is product-related and big issues don’t get as many views as they should,” Brown says. For example, lifestyle posts that feature sustainable, zero-waste products get more engagement, and are thus more likely to be favored by TikTok’s algorithm. TikToks centering communities of color don’t get as many views as more mainstream, capitalist posts, Brown says.
That’s not to say that there are not creators of color who dabble in lifestyle content and climate education. Biabani—who is not a member of EcoTok but who is friends with Hernandez and Brown—lives at that intersection. So does 22-year-old Jessica Zubia Calsada, also known as @plantawhisperer. Zubia Calsada mainly posts educational videos about veganism and sustainability, along with more playful TikToks showcasing her thrifted outfits to trending audio clips (one is set to Megan Thee Stallion saying, “I can’t talk right now, I’m doing hot girl shit”). Zubia Calsada’s primary goal is to make veganism more inclusive and accessible.
“This movement should resonate with people and really should look at all forms of social injustice,” Zubia Calsada says. She hopes mainstream vegan creators on TikTok will move away from gatekeeping and whitewashing and toward sharing knowledge and helping out the vegan community.
Biabani also sees TikTok as a way to create an intentional, inclusive climate-minded community. “It’s not just about creating content,” Biabani says. “It’s also thinking of new ways to break into spaces that traditionally people like me haven’t been involved in, or just creating these spaces that are more inclusive.”
One of the best things about being a part of Climate Justice TikTok is that the people you meet there often turn into friends outside the platform. Zubia Calsada has since joined a Discord chat with other creators, and Biabani regularly joins Clubhouse discussions with Hernandez. “I wish I started earlier,” Zubia Calsada says. But she’s here now, and welcomes any would-be climate TikTokers to join her.